Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Bombardment of Heligoland ~ Part 2

As the Bombardment Group went about on the next westward leg, matters went from bad to worse with Empress of India. An 11 inch shell screamed in, striking her stern and damaging the rudder flat. Her steering shot, Empress of India began to swerve out of the line to port. 

The damage control party were soon on the scene. EA Bert Hoskins scratched his head as he regarded the steel shard jammed in the rudder trunk. The whistle of the wind and the roar of battle came through the hole in the deck above his head where the enemy shell had entered.

"I dunno, Frank," he shouted to his mate, EA Frank Arkwright. "How should we fix this'n, then?"

"Do wot my Old Man always did when 'e 'ad a problem, mechanical-like," Frank replied in a gentle clatter of dropped aitches. "'It it wiv an 'ammer!"

"Right you are, lad." Bert held out his hand. "Pass me that there sledge'ammer..."

Captain Marsh commanding Empress of India ordered a reduction in speed to take the strain off the rudder while repairs were made. The Empress described one full circle, her two fit consorts passing north of her and Royal Sovereign slowing to pass south. The wounded ship resounded with solid clangs and grunts before finally a cheerful voice came from the confines of the rudder flat. 
"Try the bugger now, sir!"
The message - suitably bowdlerised - made its way to the bridge. The quartermaster tentatively tried the ships wheel before grinning and nodding to his Captain. "Helm's answering, sir!"

"And at the end of it all we merely exchanged places in the line." Marsh nodded approval. "Tell the engineering lads well done, and they can ask for an extra tot of run when this business is over."


To the north the effects of the bombardment were increasing. The island resembled a volcano as shell bursts dotted the once-pristine surface. Two more emplacements erupted in flame and ruin as 13.5 inch shells found their mark. Fires raged in the upper village to lend an awful human tragedy to the scene. The steeple of St. Nikolas' Church rose serenely above it all.

The next salvo destroyed the sole surviving 11 inch gun turret, effectively ending the island's heaviest-hitting artillery. Heligoland's defence now depended on the 28 cm howitzers, which had made a good show at pulverising Royal Sovereign's secondary armament, but had failed to penetrate her main belt and deck armour.

Edwards squinted through his binoculars. "Another hit on the civilian area, sir."

"Bloody hell," Ramsay muttered. "Resolution again?"

"Yes sir, but not to worry." Edwards lowered his binoculars and smiled. "She hit the enemy barracks this time." 

"It seems Captain Cavendish had a word with Thessiger."

"Quite likely, sir."

The Kasern erupts.

Edwards resumed his scan of the island and its environs. Movement in the area of the inner harbour caught his eye and he stiffened. "Sir? Enemy torpedo boats heading toward us, close by the harbour."

Six lean shapes emerged from the haze of drifting smoke, their sights set on the Bombardment Group.

"Hmm." Ramsay studied the oncoming vessels. "I'm surprised they haven't made an appearance before now."

"We are down two 6 inch guns, sir. Those howitzers may not be good for penetrating solid armour, but they played havoc with our secondary guns and crews."

"Indeed. Perhaps those fellows yonder relied upon the damage we've suffered to our secondaries being greater than it is. Signal the squadron to be on the watch for torpedoes. Warn our lookouts, too. Beastly things!"

As he turned to give orders for a moment Edwards thought Ramsay referred to Royal Sovereign's stalwart lookouts before realising it was a non-sequitur.

Although Royal Sovereign had lost all but two of her 6 inch guns to enemy fire, her consorts had not suffered anywhere near as much, or at all. As the German torpedo boats closed, so the British gun crews found their marks. The leading boats shuddered and split apart as the heavy projectiles ripped into their fragile hulls.

"Those fellows have plenty of pluck," Ramsay remarked as the surviving two torpedo boats sliced through the falling spray, debris and smoke to zero in on the squadron. Torpedoes shot from their tubes and splashed into the sea. Foaming wakes appeared, heading straight for the Bombardment Group.

An order came from Rear Admiral Crabtree. "Signal - the squadron must turn to comb the torpedo tracks!"

Ramsay gave the order to signal, but he could already see that years of peacetime naval maneuvers had paid off. The squadron's ships were already turning northward to comb the tracks. From his vantage point Ramsay could see trouble ahead. 

"Damn it, Tom, but it's going to be tight."

Even as he spoke a colossal plume of smoke and dirty water rose from Empress of India's stern quarter. The resounding explosion was accompanied by a wave of heat that they felt even on Royal Sovereign's bridge.

Ramsay watched with a sick dread as Empress of India reeled and yawed - before carrying on as before. He breathed a sigh of relief. "I think she's hurt, Tom, but not as bad as I feared."

"Bloody good job, sir. It'd be a shame for the Empress to sink now after all this."

The secondary armament of Resolution and Repulse made short work of the two remaining torpedo boats. 

Ramsay eyed the floating wreckage and the heads of survivors in the water. "Brave fellows. They gave it a damned good try. If we have any boats left, Tom, make sure to ready them for search and rescue once this business is finished."

"Aye aye, sir." Edwards gestured toward the island. "The enemy's fire is definitely slackening. I think we're near victory."

The last emplacement goes up.

A plume of smoke rose into the sky as the last 24 cm gun emplacement took a direct hit. Fire from the island died way altogether. The order to cease fire came from the flag bridge and a shocking silence descended on the scene. 

The Bombardment Squadron approached slowly and cautiously, the lookouts scanning the area with keen attention in case any more torpedo boats were lurking. Some of the island's nearer 4.1 inch guns fired as the squadron came within range, but a few choice shots in reply from the 6 inch guns soon dissuaded them from any more efforts. 

Soon a white flag was seen waving from the church tower. A picket boat emerged from the harbour flying another white flag and made its way toward the waiting ships. Rear Admiral Crabtree strode onto the bridge with the air of a man who saw a knighthood in his near future. 

"Congratulations, sir," Ramsay greeted him with a salute. 

Crabtree responded in kind then rubbed his hands together. "A splendid piece of work, eh, Jeff? Well well. Kindly signal the squadron to heave-to and anchor, then ask Charybdis to come along over here to land her troops. We can sew this business up before teatime, I think."

"Indeed sir."

Ramsay gave his orders then walked out onto the port bridge wing to lean on the rail. The fresh westerly wind failed to carry away the stench of smoke, propellant and, yes, burned human flesh. He looked down on the charnel pit a 28 cm shell had made of the closest 6 inch gun position. A surgeon's mate picked his way carefully over the blood-streaked wreckage in search of survivors as a damage control party got to work clearing debris. Lt. Edwards already had crews making ready to sway out the remaining boats to rescue the enemy torpedo boat survivors.

More than a few of my gallant ship's company won't see another teatime, either. Ramsay wiped his hand over his face, feeling suddenly weary. I'll visit the wounded then comes the hardest duty - writing the letters to the bereaved families. He looked over to the island, where fires still burned in the wrecked houses of the village. But before all that it'd be a kindness to help save what we can from the damage we caused those poor civilians.

Royal Sovereign slowed. Up on the forecastle the anchor crew got to work. With a last glance around Ramsay entered the bridge to give orders for firefighting parties to go ashore. 

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